FRANKFORT — An immigration enforcement bill that would make it a state crime for an illegal immigrant to set foot in Kentucky cleared a Senate panel Thursday, and the full Senate might approve the measure as early as Friday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-3 to approve Senate Bill 6, a measure that would allow local law enforcement to inquire about a person's immigration status and creates a host of new immigration-related crimes.
Democratic Sens. Robin Webb of Grayson, Perry Clark of Louisville and Jerry Roads of Madisonville, voted against the bill, saying it was unclear how much the measure would cost the state, local police and county jails.
An analysis done by legislative staff said the bill could have a "significant" impact on the state's finances by increasing the prison population, which would increase spending by the state Department of Corrections.
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All three said they believe federal immigration reform is needed, but the state proposal has too many legal and practical problems.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. John Schickel of Union, said federal enforcement of current immigration law is spotty at best. Despite not knowing how the measure would impact local law enforcement, county jails or state prisons, the cost of not implementing the law would undoubtedly be greater, he said.
The bill allows police to inquire about a person's immigration status during a "lawful contact" with an illegal immigrant. An illegal immigrant who is caught in Kentucky could be charged with a misdemeanor. Subsequent violations would result in a felony.
The measure also would make smuggling for profit and "aiding and abetting" an illegal immigrant a crime.
SB 6 goes further than a controversial Arizona immigration law by making it a state crime to be in Kentucky illegally, opponents of the bill say. The Arizona law is being challenged in federal court by the administration of President Barack Obama.
"We must protect our citizens even if it is inconvenient, uncomfortable and costly to do so," Schickel said. "SB 6 is the most direct path to the safety and security that we desire."
Clark dismissed the bill as political posturing. Clark, who represents a racially diverse area of Louisville, said he would worry about his neighbors being detained because they "don't look the same as me.
"This is a terrible precedent," he said. "It will do nothing."
Clark suggested the state proposal is a political ploy by Senate President David Williams, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor.
Webb, Rhoads and Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, also questioned how the state law might interfere with federal enforcement of immigration laws and questioned whether it would be difficult to implement. Jones ultimately voted to support the bill.
But Schickel said the law includes provisions that would allow police officers broad discretion on enforcing the law.
Opponents of the law, including immigration lawyers, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and the American Civil Liberties Union, urged senators to defeat the bill, saying it contains numerous provisions that will likely be challenged in court.
Kate Miller, with the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union, noted that a federal judge has already blocked major portions of the Arizona law.
Miller also said the bill does not define what documents would prove someone's legal immigration status, and that such documents vary from state to state. It is sometimes possible to be in the state legally but not have federal immigration papers, she said.
Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the federal government has authority over immigration, not states, she said.
Rev. Pat Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, said the Arizona law has had unintended consequences.
Delahanty read from affidavits of several police officers and county sheriffs in Arizona who say they do not have the resources to enforce federal immigration laws. Some said they felt they had to enforce immigration laws at the expense of investigating other crimes.
"We do not know the cost of this legislation, but suspect it will be in the millions of dollars at the expense of addressing actual serious needs that Kentucky has," Delahanty said.
Douglas Roy, president of Kentuckians for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, a statewide organization, told the Senate panel that the cost of not detaining immigrants is great. Educating illegal immigrants in schools could cost as much as $600 billion to $700 billion a year nationally, Roy said.
"The best thing that we could do as a state and as a nation would be to begin deporting illegal immigrants," Roy said.
Tom Wurtz of Ft. Mitchell also urged lawmakers to protect Kentuckians from illegal immigrants.
"I have three daughters who have to live in this country. Please defend our borders," said Wurtz.
Even if the measure passes the Senate Friday as expected, it will likely face an uphill battle in the Democratic-controlled House.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said he believes state police already have the power to ask immigrants about their immigration status and a new state law may not be needed.
Stumbo is pushing House Bill 3, which would require businesses that receive government contracts to verify the immigration status of all employees. Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, one of the sponsors of the bill, said the bill would allow the state to terminate any contract if a company is caught knowingly employing illegal immigrants.
The measure has passed the House the past two years but has died in the Senate.